There is a thought among many that morality is the most important thing in one’s decision-making processes. Suppose that you have to decide between doing the moral thing and the practical thing in some scenario, what should you do? For example, you promised to attend your niece’s birthday but you also have the option to work more hours and get overtime pay. The latter may be more practical, but of course you should keep your promise. In this way, your moral reason — promise-keeping — overrides your practical reason; getting overtime.
The idea that morality is always overriding in this way — that it always defeats or outweighs other reasons — is precisely what Susan Wolf aims, in part, to argue against in her seminal paper Moral Saints. Utilitarians and Deontologists both hold that morality is overriding (always maximize happiness, never treat someone as a means to an end…).
The idea is that if moral saints are unattractive, and morality does not require us to be them, then moral reasons cannot be overriding. Since the saint has perfect moral motivations which always outweigh other motivations, showing the shortcomings of the saints shows the shortcomings of the overridingness view.
“I wish to examine the notion of a moral saint, first, to understand what a moral saint would be like and why such a being would be unattractive…”
A moral saint is someone who is just perfect, morally speaking. They always do the right thing whenever they can, and aim at doing the right thing at all times. Wolf wants to say that being this morally ideal is not, actually, a good thing, because it makes the agent the sort of person we don’t like, and also is bad for the saint. As a result, she concludes that it can’t be a requirement of morality that one be a moral saint. Common sense would dictate against it. Part of her project is simply to remind us that there is simply more to life than just being morally good.
Wolf draws a distinction between two kinds of Saints. The first is what she calls the loving saint, and the second is the rational saint. The difference between them is understood by their differing motivations for being ideal moral agents. The loving saint is morally perfect out of an enjoyment of helping others. She enjoys sacrificing for the needy, gets pleasure from giving money to the homeless man on the corner, and never passes up the opportunity to volunteer for a good political cause. She does all of this because she likes to help others just as much as, or more than, she enjoys helping herself.
The rational saint is not so enthusiastic about moral goodness, but rather does everything perfectly out of duty to the moral law. This saint you might call the ideal deontologist, for he does what he does out of a sense of obligation to do the right thing. He does all the same things that the loving saint does, but trudges along with difficulty, having to force himself to do what is right.
Here are two questions to ask yourself right off the bat:
(1) Would you want to be a moral saint?
(2) Would you admire a moral saint?
Wolf says in the first lines of her essay, “I don’t know if there are any moral saints, but if there are, I’m glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them (p. 419).”
Many of us, I think, will be inclined to say that we wouldn’t want to be a moral saint, either.
Think about what it would imply about you if you were a moral saint. We all enjoy a fine meal with our family every once in awhile, a trip to an amusement park, a visit to the museums, playing sports, practicing a musical instrument, or going to the theatre. All of these aesthetic, athletic, and musical aspects of life could not be enjoyed by the saint, for there is always some other moral project that he could — and should — be working on.
Additionally, certain personality traits that we enjoy seem incompatible with the saint. How can you make sarcastic jokes or have a cynical outlook every once in awhile if doing so would bring others displeasure, or violate some duty to the moral law? The moral saint, then, is undesirable both in terms of the life he would lead but also in terms of the personality he would have. The moral saint does nothing fun, and isn’t funny. As Emmett Brown says in Back to the Future III, “What kind of a life is that?!”
The reasons why many of us wouldn’t want to be a saint, then, are (1) because it would mean that we forego all non-moral goods in life, which we think are important for a life well lived and (2) we would sacrifice an enjoyable and lively personality, which would seem to make us bland people. Our lives would be worse off, and people wouldn’t really like us that much. These jointly seem like good reasons for not wanting to be the saint.
But there is something else to be said about the issue, which is that if everyone were saints, the world would also be bland. Imagine if there were no concert pianists, no museums, and no sports games simply because everyone were trying to do the right thing all the time. They are constantly trying to ensure fairness, help the needy, and enforce moral law. Such a world would be as boring as the saints themselves. Surely such a world is undesirable.
But would we admire the moral saint? You might think that, despite their being difficult to be around, and themselves having a life devoid of non-moral goods, that there is something to respect in them, such that our admiration is warranted. Ask yourself, first, whether you’d admire the saint.
Wolf wants to say no, we wouldn’t admire the saint, and the reasons are similar to those we mentioned earlier, but she does have different reasons she offers for why we wouldn’t admire the loving saint or the rational one.
The loving saint, as previously mentioned, is the one who enjoys being moral, such that she foregoes all of the non-moral goods in her life. Wolf points out there is something odd about this saint — she too easily gives up the non-moral goods which most of us enjoy.
Since she appears to us to be enjoying her life of moral santhood, this would suggest, for Wolf, that she doesn’t really have the right appreciation for those things we all hold dear in the non-moral domain. How could you give up sports or literature so easily such that you don’t feel any void in your life, when carrying on your moral projects. In this way, Wolf says that the vice the saint exhibits is that her moral goodness subsumes or devours the non-moral goods. This seems prima facie problematic.
The rational saint, on the other hand, has a different problem. He may recognize the value in non-moral goods that the loving saint doesn’t, but he intentionally removes those from his life. This is why, you might think, the rational saint is said to be moved by duty — he foregoes the “worldly” pleasures in order to abide by the moral law. This is something which causes him some grief.
This suppression of the non-moral goods in life, for Wolf, seems to suggest some sort of pathological self-hatred, or an excessive fear of damnation. Why else would someone be so bound by the moral law other than a decision to self-flagellate, in some sense, or because they are afraid of what would happen if they didn’t perform their duty all of the time? Non-moral goods are devoured by the loving saint, and they are suppressed by the rational saint. In both cases, this seems problematic, and gives us cause to hold back our admiration for them.
So, moral saints aren’t worthy targets of our admiration, the world would be worse off if we were all a saint, and the saint would be undesirable both to be and for us to be around. Common sense dictates, then, that sainthood wouldn’t be a good thing. This suggests, for Wolf, that a constraint on morality is not that one be a moral saint. If the point of morality is to live an excellent life, and being a moral saint would make such a life impossible, then morality doesn’t dictate that one be a saint. There is just more to life than being moral, and Wolf’s essay reminds us that we would all be better off to ourselves remember that fact.
Susan Wolf’s Moral Saints:
(Note that this summary is of the first part of her essay only, on common sense and sainthood. In the second half she uses the idea of moral saints to criticize Utilitarianism and Deontology)